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18 July 2016

Journalism failed when it allowed Boris Johnson to flourish – with dire consequences

A responsible media would have ignored Johnson, and let him be a fat Alan Clark, rotting with thwarted ambition. Now we have to live with our folly.

By Tanya Gold

I love writing about Boris Johnson, so much that I could not bear to write his political obituary; now he is installed in the Foreign Office for the next fifteen minutes – that is my hope, at least – I do not have to. Hacks are obsessed with Johnson; they resent his political ambitions. This is pride in the trade; we poke the monkeys in the cage, but we do not presume to be monkeys. (Never underestimate the self-importance of the journalist). Was journalism – and Johnson was to journalists what stars are to actors, that is, he wrote thrilling bollocks, often lies – not good enough for him, when he was already more famous than he deserved? (He was fired from his first job at the Times for inventing quotes but he recovered and became a star at the Telegraph, writing so dishonestly about the EU the FO had its own Johnson unit, whose job, I fantasise, was to tut among themselves). The only story he ever broke was himself.

He commissioned me when he was editor of the Spectator. I liked the surface of him – the falling hair, the dirty eyes, the stupid voice. But then I learnt what he did to Sonia Purnell when he was her colleague in Brussels. He sent her the wrong way to her first event; the man with everything harms the woman who only has herself.  (Her revenge was a fair and penetrating biography; his was trying to get her banned from the BBC). And there was Petronella Wyatt; he wasn’t nice to women. After that, I hated him; and I could never escape the feeling that all of this was somehow about his father Stanley.

The way we followed him was a wind-up, an excursion from serious to stupid. I remember, in 2006, in Bournemouth, he made some minor gaffe relating to Jamie Oliver, and we chased until he was a man in the midst of a forest of cameras; the rest of Conference, engaged in embracing the Tory Tree, was forgotten. It must have looked ridiculous from a distance. He was certainly furious when we cornered him; we were treating him like Beyonce, when he wanted to be – I’m not sure really; most narcissists only want to be themselves but they are afraid to be.

If this was our homage – we helped him become the most visible politician Britain, after all, he was Maverick to David Cameron’s Ice Man – it was also our insult. We bring the rope. You bring the man. We certainly colluded in his self-destruction; we encouraged it with our attention, which was more than he merited. You might call us enablers. After that, he always looked like a man who had climbed too far up a bean-stalk; his visible terror, on leading Brexit to victory, did not surprise me at all, because, for him, there was nothing beyond the want. He had never believed in anything; then, when Gove threw the knife, he was exposed as not even believing in himself. I wondered if he was relieved, for when you are caught out you can stop lying; but I cannot say. In any case, it did not last. The news cycle did another heartless turn.

At Birmingham a few years later – 2012, I think – he was met at the station by a crowd so thick (the technical term is “rolling goat fuck”) that Johnson himself seemed to become a national issue, like transport, infrastructure, or Northern Ireland. What to do with Johnson? He had, by this stage, become our first Reality TV politician, a terrible creature that would reach its full horror in Donald Trump whose mysterious popularity is rooted, I think, in self-disgust, fatalism and ennui. He was a character in search of a denouement, connected to nothing tangible, least of all politics itself; it doesn’t matter which way he goes, as long as there is drama. Even his name is fake; he is really called Alexander, and I wonder if he would have been a more truthful politician with that name; it is certainly a magnificent metaphor for his emptiness.

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A small minority reported on the facts of his mayoral term, but they were buried in the avalanche of the rest. Before Brexit powerful journalists came out against him: Max Hastings, who employed him on the Telegraph, and wrote with all the passion of schadenfreude; Matthew Parris, more gently, in the Times.

But this was chaff in the wind.  Our main project was to tease his exhibitionism to terrible places, and report on it. The zip wire for instance. During the second mayoral election I watched him sign campaign literature, dress up as a baker, play snooker, flirt with ancient women – “promise not to vote for anyone else,” he growled – and try to run a flower stall. He ignored all hostile questions; he talked about his hair.  The politics moved further away. After Brexit he was announcing policy in his Telegraph column; that he attended party events after dropping out of the leadership election was written up as something amazing; and it was, for him.

He is, I suspect, best suited to absolute monarchy as a political system; he will be ecstatic at the Foreign Office, with its politesse and rugs. He can pretend he is Louis XIV. He can potentially ride a horse.

In the 1980’s Johnson would not have been a contender for high office. He would have been a fat Alan Clark, lurking in a B list castle, rotting with thwarted ambition. That he does not is our fault; it was idiotic, an absolute failure of journalism, and we are reaping the wages of our folly and resentment, which are most enormous than we could ever have imagined. A responsible media would simply have ignored Johnson, make space for better men, make space, perhaps, for him to be a better man – but he was one of our own. We kept him alive until we tried to kill him; and even in that we failed.

Follow Tanya Gold on Twitter: @TanyaGold1

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This article appears in the 13 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM